There is a great deal of talk these days about maintaining, or raising, standards in our schools. The prevailing notion seems to be that children tend to be slackers, and that the only way to ensure that our culture survives without degradation of its achievements is to force children to measure up to the high standards set by the culture. These standards are enshrined in various models adopted by professional educators, and the degree of adherence to the standards is measured by assessments designed by educators based on the models. The most common type of model is the printed textbook, which lays out for the students the accepted, authoritative version of whatever domain is being studied. Other types of model exist, too – for example, those provided by the living example or oral transmission of teachers.
The hue and cry that our schools must “raise their standards” is taken to mean two things: first, and foremost, it means that greater pains should be taken by teachers and administrators to make sure the students have “learned” – that is, absorbed and memorized and mastered – the models well enough to reproduce them on demand. This requires more intensive indoctrination of students, and more severe techniques of forcing the students to toe the line and do the work required. A second aspect of “raising standards” is trying to improve the teaching end of the process, by upgrading the models, live and otherwise, on which the standards are based. Unfortunately, the whole discussion of standards has become steeped in rhetoric, while the underlying assumptions and realities are rarely examined. In this little essay, I would like to look at this issue from a historical perspective, and thus perhaps gain some new insight into its meaning.
Everybody knows that young children, as they grow up from infancy, are the most exacting critics of their own actions. Without external goading or even encouragement, they struggle mightily to become effective adults – in other words, to act and think in ways that they see effective adults acting and thinking. This striving on the part of children is universal, and absolutely essential to the survival of the human species. It guarantees that the advances of each generation will somehow be passed on to the next generation without any special provision made for that transmission. Since virtually all of human history has taken place in a context devoid of formal schooling or instruction, you can see that if children did not have an internal mechanism to strive to excel as adults, such culture as might have developed in any particular generation would long since have died out.
Initially, when communications were rudimentary and people lived in small, contiguous groupings, there was no problem of “standards”. Children grew up immersed in the world in which they would ultimately function as adults, and were in constant contact with the best and the worst models of behavior and thought. They formed their own judgments, over time, of who they wanted to emulate, and how they wanted to go about it, aided by the advice of the adults whose wisdom they sought. Occasionally, when contact was made with other groups, there would be a transfer between groups of some new cultural forms, and these would eventually get transmuted into a form consistent with the native culture, and promulgated as part of the native culture.
This situation prevailed without much difficulty until gradually, over time, communications among people became more frequent and more inclusive. As this historic transformation unfolded, the question of models and standards became more complex. People would somehow obtain information about something new that had been introduced somewhere. The hunger for knowledge derived from sources beyond the immediate environment of the group led to a constant yearning for new models to follow. One sees signs of this universal yearning, in various forms, throughout recorded history, in all cultures.
The introduction of the printing press as an integral part of the cultural scheme brought even greater change. Now, one’s yearnings might be fulfilled by reading about something new and exotic. This isn’t quite the same as observing a living model in action; in fact, it is quite different. Reading about something whets the appetite, but leaves the reader at the mercy of his/her own imagination as to what the written word really represents. You get local representations of the realities described in print – and these become the effective models of the local community. That’s the source of all textbooks, and of all local teaching. The books put into words, as well as the author can, the author’s understanding of some aspect of a foreign culture (or of a distant discovery, activity, etc.), and the local teacher does his/her best to model that aspect in the context of the local culture.
Throughout the modern era, which is defined by the emergence of printing and of communication through writing, the limitations of the communication system created a problem of standards. Everyone understood that the only really successful way to transmit some piece of one culture to another culture is through direct contact, and through immersion. The only truly acceptable standard was that of a master, as modeled to an apprentice. Up until very recently, apprenticeship was the chief means of maintaining standards. Written communication essentially acquainted someone, somewhere with an activity (I use the word in its broadest sense, to include actions, thoughts, values, cultural schema) going on at a particular location on the planet. With this highly schematic introduction as a starting point, people who thought they might like to become adept at the new activity they have just heard about would set forth to the distant land where it originated, and apprentice themselves to masters there. They might then remain, or return to their original settings to become models for their native culture. This pattern prevailed in the sciences, in philosophy, in the arts, in religion, in virtually every aspect of human culture.
Since there aren’t that many masters alive at any given time, this meant that the problem of standards was one that was ever-present in modern times. Because of the wide distribution of the written word, people everywhere heard about the best masters for every activity, but only a few people could experience these masters in their native settings. Hence the development, and constant call for improvement, of textbooks, and of professional teachers (who are quite different from masters in the activities which they teach). A student might yearn to learn physics at the feet of Einstein, but s/he would have to settle for learning physics from the local high school or college physics teacher; and the same goes for music, art, philosophy, whatever. Modern times were rife with frustration at the gap between the excellence hinted at, and somehow described, in the written word, and the excellence (or lack of it) exhibited by local exemplars of the activity. If you want a vivid picture of what I am talking about, compare the experience of hearing Franz Liszt play one of his pieces, versus hearing the best local pianist in some remote village playing the same thing; or compare seeing Ty Cobb play, versus watching the local sandlot baseball team. Whatever the activity, the frustration at the gap between the excellence suggested in written form and the degree of mastery exhibited locally is a central feature of modernism.
The only constant in the whole picture is the burning desire of children, as they are growing up, to emulate the best of what they see around them. They do not have to be forced by some outsider to improve their performance; they will mercilessly castigate themselves for every failing to live up to the best models they have available. The problem lies wholly in the inadequacy of the local models, vis a vis the best models that exist where the activity is best practiced.
The twentieth century, and in particular the latter half of the century, has changed the situation dramatically, and irrevocably. What we are now experiencing is the globalization of standards, thanks to the invention of means of communication that can turn geographically distant locations into effectively contiguous environments. It is now possible to be “in the presence” of a master, wherever s/he might be, in real time – and, even better, to keep a record of that presence that can be reviewed at will as often as possible. If you are a budding pianist, you can “be at” concerts given by virtually any of the world’s great soloists – and you can repeat that experience as often as you wish, at will. This is rapidly becoming true of virtually any activity, and accessibility is spreading at an unprecedented clip. I am sure that within the lifetime of our children the vast majority of the human race will be able to experience directly almost any masterfully performed activity they wish. And this access, mind you, is not in some vaguely suggestive manner expressed through the written word, but in a direct contact with the fully developed original activity – soon to be available in three dimensions, with all the senses equally involved (sight, hearing, smell, touch, etc.). This is no Jules Verne fantasy; this is close to reality today, and completely comprehensible within the framework of existing, or soon to be developed, technology.
The globalization of standards has rendered the entire question of standards moot, in a fundamental way. There is no longer a need for an intermediate caste of second-rate models, the caste of professional teachers. And there is no need at all to worry about children choosing to settle for less than the highest degree of excellence. No self-respecting child, with access to first class masters, would choose of his/her own accord to model him/herself on someone second rate! Nor would any child seeking to become an effective adult make the mistake (so easy to make when only poor models are available) of thinking that s/he would cut the mustard on the global scene if his/her level of mastery was anything less than world-class.
The cry to “raise standards” is a relic of a bygone era. The image that comes to mind for me is a group of military leaders bemoaning the decline in fighting skills of their armies, and insisting on improving the fencing, lancing, and archery skills of the young recruits being trained for service. Longer hours are demanded, more training, better instructors, severe punishment for those who don’t live up to what’s expected, and so forth. Meanwhile, the young recruits are all aware – thanks to the existence of modern communications – that the wars of today and tomorrow are not being fought with swords, lances, and crossbows, but with highly sophisticated and deadly modern weapons! The textbooks (even “multi-media” curriculum materials), the teachers, are relics of another era. The hue and cry today should be to get rid of the artificial, outdated, second-rate standards being forced upon our youth by the educational establishment, and let our children measure themselves against the global standards they are experiencing every day on their own. Get out of the way, and let excellence flourish from within!
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